George Kerevan: No need to underestimate the Yes campaign

YES, the launch was in a cinema; yes, it was full of pensioners; yes, it had an Old Labour feel; and yes, it might just unite the nation, writes George Kerevan

YES, the launch was in a cinema; yes, it was full of pensioners; yes, it had an Old Labour feel; and yes, it might just unite the nation, writes George Kerevan

LAST Friday’s public launch of the Yes campaign got decidedly mixed reviews. Most of them missed the real political issues facing the new pro-independence alliance.

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Some of the media criticisms were of the “scrapping the barrel” sort, especially complaints it was held in… er, a cinema. Perhaps the media pack doesn’t visit the movies that often. True, there wasn’t a lot of room between the stage and the front row where the VIPs were sitting, which gave the photographers a hard time. For most of the proceedings, the snappers had their backs firmly to the stage and screen, their cameras barely six inches from the faces of Big Alex and the impish Alan Cumming.

One reviewer complained the standing-room only audience consisted mostly pensioners. Well, apart from the fact that most folk are at work on a Friday morning, pensioners are a key group the Yes campaign has to win over. It should find a ready audience. According to a recent report by PwC, the world’s largest accountancy firm, UK citizens born today will be forced to work till they are 77 before retiring, with the following generation likely to work till 85. That’s not much of an incentive to stay in the Union.

The major line of criticism in London media was that the launch event had an Old Labour feel, as exemplified by contributions from Dennis Canavan, actor Brian Cox (who introduced himself as a “democratic socialist”) and Tommy Brennan, former convener at the old Ravenscraig steelworks. One prominent pro-Unionist commentator opined: “If the Unionists can’t beat this lot, then Scotland deserves to be turned into another Latvia”.

He may have forgotten that Latvia was only a backward Stalinist society after its forceable incorporation into the Soviet Union. Since the Latvians recovered independence in 1990, their economy has been transformed – proving that having freedom to set your own agenda makes for success. Latvia’s growth was 5.5 per cent last year compared to 0.7 per cent in the UK. First-quarter growth in 2012 was the fastest in the EU – 6.8 per cent. Meanwhile, the UK is in double-dip recession. No wonder the ratings agencies have just raised Latvia’s credit status.

It is true that the Yes launch had overtones of the revivalist socialist gatherings of my youth – including those of the old Scottish Socialist Society in the early 1980s, which I remember Alex Salmond attending. Many folk commented they had not heard such a tub-thumping call to the barricades – as rendered in Shakespearian cadences by Brian Cox – for many a long year. There may have been a lot of pensioners last Friday, but after Mr Cox was done they were full of the fire of their youth. That is good news for the Yes campaign – enthusiasm and the willingness to knock on doors on rainy nights for the next two years is what secures votes.

There is a lot more to the raising of the red flag alongside the Saltire than the assembled UK media seemed able to grasp. For a start, the Yes movement has to become more than an SNP front or it will fail to win a majority. Strategically, the campaign has to reach out to the core C2 and DE working class voters who normally vote Labour but who have a enduring emotional softspot for Scottish independence.

People such as the taxi driver who took me to the launch, happily admitting he might vote Yes with his heart while his head was worried about the economic risks. “Can we really go it alone?” he asked. Most working class voters are no longer instinctively Unionist – that is why the Yes campaign could win. But these folk want reassurance regarding what an independent Scotland will look like.

They don’t necessarily want technical details – you try explaining on the doorstep how sterling parity would operate. But they do want assurance there will be more jobs, a better NHS and they won’t have to retire at 77. In essence, they want to know that the social democratic contract between the state and individual – the contract that Mrs Thatcher tore up – will be reconstituted in an independent Scotland. That is why the conversion to independence of old stalwards of the Labour movement such as Dennis Canavan, Tommy Brennan and ex-Blairite Brian Cox are a potent new factor in the campaign.

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Of course, this political move brings risks if it alienates the business community. Last Friday’s Yes launch had no business people making a pitch on stage, though they did turn up on screen. That was a mistake. This is a small country with a social democratic consensus that unites both the middle and working classes. Democratic socialists and business folk are capable of cooperating to achieve Scotland’s statehood – otherwise they won’t get it. Which means – inevitably – the Yes campaign is going to embrace wider definitions of socialism than the SNP’s moderate social democracy.

However, a complacent London media should not imagine we are seeing the emergence of a “loony left” in Scotland, that will divide the Yes campaign and turn off middle class voters. The revival of a pro-independence democratic socialism can easily tap into the psyche of Labour’s traditional heartlands, including the middle class. That is threat to Scottish Labour beyond the referendum.

The recomposition of a wider pro-independence left outside the SNP is already starting. Witness the Radical Independence Conference, scheduled for 6 October in Glasgow. This aims to bring together everyone who has a radical vision for an independent Scotland. As well as the Greens and Scottish Socialist Party, a lot of independent names have already signed up: Iain Banks, the writer; John Duffy, Scottish secretary of the Fire Brigades Union; Isobel Lindsay of CND, plus a phalanx of important student leaders. Such a grassroots Yes campaign could damage Labour.

One final comment on the Yes launch. The dead tree media were not impressed. But the event looked good on the internet, which is where this campaign is going to be fought.